OpinionFebruary 8, 2010

Why Golf And Cheating Are A Poor Fit

The collective world of golf always cringes when a "cheating" charge is invoked because it doesn't happen often, not that it doesn't happen at all. The allegations often don't get louder than whispers in a corner booth, but as Tom Watson famously said in 1996, "We know who they are." Public accusations have occurred but most offenders in this self-policing sport receive private sentences. "If a fellow player asks me for advice on a drop, I'll tell him to go ahead and take it if he thinks he's entitled," Frank Beard once wrote in Golf Digest. "He has to live with himself."

Phil Mickelson and Scott McCarron made nice in the wake of McCarron's charge that Mickelson's use of a square-groove Ping Eye 2 wedge in the Farmers Insurance Open was cheating and contrary to "the spirit of the rules." One can laugh (or cry) at the loophole that permits the grandfathered Eye 2 to be used -- Mickelson admitted he put one in his bag as much for a political ploy as a smart play -- but it is as legal as the long putter McCarron has anchored to his chest during his tour career.

Are long putters really in the spirit of the rules? Many purists are repulsed by them, believing they are a crutch for frayed nerves. When McCarron won his first tournament, at New Orleans in 1996, he talked about how he wouldn't have been there if he hadn't resorted to a long putter. What about those big directional lines many players are marking on their balls and relying on when they putt? Are those truly in the spirit of golf?

For some elite golfers, caddies aren't there just for yardages and pep talks but are walking, talking GPS devices standing behind their players, lining them up before shuffling off to the side. It looks like something that should be happening with a 15-handicapper during a playing lesson instead of to a pro when a tournament is on the line. Greats of earlier eras may well have loved many things about the modern game, but I bet an alpaca sweater this practice wouldn't have been one of them.

Joe Dey, for decades the sport's most powerful and passionate steward, said, "The integrity of golf is all of golf. If you don't have that, it's no game at all." To Dey, there wasn't any distinction between a player greasing up the face of his driver with Vaseline and exerting a bit more pressure than necessary when taking a stance to show he was eligible for relief from casual water. But getting disqualified from a tournament for playing a ball with a different side stamp from the same model on the conforming list isn't the same as tamping down rough to make a 7-iron lie suitable for a 4-wood. Greg Norman was once guilty of the former, and he accused Jumbo Ozaki of the latter.

Usually ignorance, not malice, gets golfers in trouble. "When I was a rules official, I never was involved with an incident where a player could be construed as 'cheating,' " says David Eger, who worked for the PGA Tour and USGA before playing on the Champions Tour. "It always involved someone who did not know a rule. For example, I rode up on a player taking relief for an embedded ball. He'd been on tour for 20 years. He said, 'OK, I get nearest point of relief and a club-length, right?' I said, 'No, it's just nearest point of relief.' He said, 'When did they change that one?' I said, 'They haven't.' " Paradoxically, for the minority of golfers inclined to bend the rules, there may be less reason to do so now than years ago, when it was harder to scratch out a living and Mondays were for qualifying. Plus, cameras and microphones are everywhere. A tight TV view of a greenside lie put Kenny Perry under scrutiny (he was absolved) after the 2009 FBR Open, and television showed Colin Montgomerie replacing his ball in the wrong position after a weather suspension in the 2005 Indonesian Open (he later acknowledged his error).

Broadcasts as security cameras and viewers as deputies go back further than you might think, at least 30 years. In the final round of the 1980 Tournament of Champions, Watson was heard walking off the 13th tee telling fellow competitor Lee Trevino that he was playing the ball too far up in his stance. Alerted by a viewer, officials docked Watson two strokes for violating the advice rule, but he still won by three. "I didn't think about what I said at the time," Watson said then. "It was just a slip."

Most rules violations are, and most golfers are honest. When they're not, it's news. Because Joe Dey was right, it's also sad.